How does free speech die? It’s a pertinent question given the events which have occurred in Paris recently. Can violence and murder and hate prevail against the human right of freedom of expression? Can death and slaughter win out over the right to insult, mock and deride any and everyone?
Judging by the reaction to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo the answer is a clear no. The magazine’s print run, usually 64,000 is now expected to be 5 million. The very insults and satire which provoked, if such a word can be used, the attack is now being seen by millions across the world who ordinarily would not see it. It’s a common enough occurrence – martyrs and tragedy invoke a fascination within us. For what reason did these good people die? What cause was so dear that the survivors would continue despite the loss?
As such, I would submit that the current bother about free speech is largely unnecessary. The death knell of free speech will not be sounded by the rattle of guns and the explosion of bombs.
Of much greater concern is passive resistance to free speech. The great “tut” of society which silences those who break with the Perceived View. The quiet suppression of debate through non-engagement, the voices of public life which are pushed to the edges for departing from what is considered to be proper, the slow but relentless march of “progress”, the tides of thought before which no one can stand.
Free speech is no easy right to maintain. For many are the fools in the world and their words are a babble and nuisance. Insult, criticism, dissension, hatred, all encouraged and inflamed by committing to a robust policy of free speech. The price of being free to voice one’s opinions is hearing back the diverse and collective opinions of mankind in all their glorious stupidity. Given this hardship, given this battle, it is important to have figureheads, examples to follow and praise.
Charlie Hebdo now stands as such a figurehead. Many have shown their support through the “Je Suis Charlie” meme which has been making the rounds of the internet. This is all well and good. No matter that Charlie Hebdo regularly pokes fun at my own religion; for all I might consider some of their work blasphemy that is a matter between them and God. I have no right to force them into silence just because their "humour" offends me. Why, if I had the right to silence those who insult me or what is dear to me who would be left speaking? However much I might disagree with the magazine I find myself willing them to greater success. If their insults have prompted violence and hatred from those who despise free speech may they have the courage to be twice as insulting!
Yet Charlie Hebdo will be forgotten within a few months, yesterday’s news. If we are to have a standard for free speech there are better ones to pick. Ladies and gentlemen, may I bring to your attention: Jeremy Clarkson. I’m sure we know the pattern – every six months or so Jeremy Clarkson makes a joke about someone or other and some part of the UK’ population is insulted and complains. It hits the papers, the BBC promises to look into and realises, once again, that they can’t get rid of him.
Jeremy is the perfect figurehead for free speech. He nobly expresses his right to insult anyone he wants. Ok, he apologies a bit too much but with a bit of public support he would get over that. I have fond memories of when all the eco-nuts went, well, nuts with some of his less pc statements about the environment. Oh, it did good to my soul to see a bunch of self-righteous environmental warriors spit and froth at the mouth. It is easy to make the survivors of a massacre figureheads; it is harder to make a guy who can be a bit of a jerk our ambassador for freedom. But it is necessary to do so to remind ourselves where the most potent threat to free speech lies.
Clarkson reminds us that the battle for free speech is not won against those with guns and bombs. It is instead won in our own minds and with our own ability to accept insult and mockery without over-reacting. He reminds us that the death of free speech will come from within, from the passive force of society rather than the aggression of militant religion. Free speech dies in quiet acquiescence, softly, without a struggle.
This is a challenge Western society is losing. Consider student unions and their propensity to no platform anyone who does not match the exacting standards of the left. No platforming the BNP is as much an attack on free speech as murdering cartoonists in cold blood, different in degree but perhaps the more deadly for it. At university it seemed that every minority group out there was doing their best to make sure no one disagreed with them. Universities, once bastions of free thinking and debate are quickly becoming self-suppressing bastions of group-think.
Disagree with the feminist agenda? Good luck getting a speaking engagement. Do you hold an opposing view on sexual ethics? Nope, not your kind here please. Climate change denier? Lol, as if.
The root of it all is a fear which stems from insecurity. For some minorities it is the insecurity of suddenly having influence where once they did not and the fear that it will be lost as quickly as it was gained. I think of feminist, LGBT and environmental groups along with newer political movements too. New to the scene of societal influence they can act with a ruthlessness which belies their fear. Ironically, it is long established institutions, religions and social groups which often care the least for insults. As a Christian, it is hard to worry about someone insulting the Bible for the Bible has been insulted in every age and Christ is still King and his church will still go on from strength to strength. But this security, based on faith in a protecting God, is missing from society at large. And so fear and insecurity prompt suppression and silencing.
The Western world is no longer secure in its spiritual, ethical and intellectual foundations. This translates into a desire to rid ourselves of the bothersome right of free speech and exist in a society where only those who speak in line with the agreed wisdom will be tolerated. Such a desire has to be fought, such insecurity has to be fought, for it is not healthy and can only lead to repression and a lessening of society as a whole.
A conviction that free speech is a right and worth dying for will bring with it a parade of hate preachers and insults. It will lead to challenges, rebukes, derision and mockery. Worst of all, it might even lead to correction. Free speech is a humbling right, both in the lows of humanity we see but also in the death of our own pride as it faces disagreement. Differing opinions should make us stronger, either in the nuances we more readily accept or in the increased conviction in our truth.
We all have a duty to protect this right to free speech. That is way with great pride I can say Je Suis Jeremy Clarkson. For I will fight for his right to make inappropriate and foolish jokes.